An Ethnographic Inquiry Of A Coven Of Contemporary Witches

An Ethnographic Inquiry Of A Coven Of Contemporary Witches
© Credit: Stargazer - Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
Toward the end of my research, a Witch asked me how I was going to define the term “witch.” This is an easy question to ask, but one which is extraordinarily resistant to a quick and easy answer. Part of the problem in coming to terms with Witchcraft as a religious system is caused by the connotations that the terms “Witch” and “Witchcraft” have in both the popular and scholarly mind. In order to avert possible misapprehensions about the religion of Witchcraft, it is necessary at the outset to dispel some of the more common misconceptions evoked by the term “witch.”

The Witches that I studied are not Satanists. They do not believe in either the Devil or Hell; nor are they practising a sort of perverse Christianity. Satanism is a heretical reversal of Christianity very different in form and content from Witchcraft. Satanists often refer to themselves as “Witches,” but Witches do not like being identified with Satanists and resent the association. Anthropologists are probably not overly concerned with the Devil, but the term “witch” has certain technical usages in anthropology which might be misleading in present context. The Witches dealt with here are not the solitary magical specialists of ethnographic fame. Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist, has argued: “most anthropological descriptions of witchcraft have little to do with what is today called witchcraft in the United States of America, and numerous analytical distinctions made by them have little use for us in looking at modern urban forms.”

Marcello Truzzi’s point is well taken though perhaps a bit overdrawn and out of context. For instance, both categories of Witches do work magic and have, at least to some extent, a bad popular image. Students interested in the behavioral consequences of deviance labelling might find some interesting cross cultural correlates by undertaking the comparative analyses of ethnographic witches and Witches.

The third category of Witches can be briefly mentioned and dismissed from further consideration. The term “witch” excites a whole host of images, from half, remembered childhood tales to Samantha of television’s “Bewitched” to the purveyors of charms who advertise in the National Enquirer and the like. Simply put, Witches of these stripes are far outside the bounds of the present study.

Excluding from consideration certain categories of people to whom the term “Witch” is applied resolves only part of the semantic problem of “Witch.” The problem has a second component, namely that Witches themselves do not agree on how to either define themselves or on whether or not they should even employ the term “witch.” Margot Susanna Adler has conducted the most thorough survey of Witchcraft and notes this diversity of opinion: “Among the Wicca, there is a division over this word Witch. Some regard it as a badge of pride, a word to be reclaimed: But others dislike the word. Some Witches will tell you that they prefer the word craft because it places emphasis on a way of practising magic. Others will say they are of the Old Religion because they wish to link themselves with Europe’s pre-Christian past and some prefer to say they are of the Wicca, in order to emphasise a family or tribe with special ties. But when they talk among themselves, they use these terms interchangeably, and outsiders are left as confused as ever.”

My own experience with Witch informants has paralleled the situation described by Margot Susanna Adler. Informants have variously used “craft,” “Wicca,” “Old Religion,” and “Witchcraft” and individuals have distinct preferences. The High Priestess of the Sword Coven, for instance, has a distinct preference for “Witch” and regards the use of “Wicca” as a “cop out.” This matter of different preferences of labels have not been regarded as an issue in the coven.

The definitional and labelling problems inherent in Witchcraft are matters of more than casual academic interest. They illustrate directly the diversity of form and content that characterise Witchcraft at every analytical level. Generalisations about Witches must be approached with extreme care.

Like Christianity, Witchcraft is a religion. Again like Christianity, Witchcraft as a belief and behavioural system is both complex and eclectic. It contains many diverse, sometimes contradictory, traditions, a situation made even more complicated by the often highly idiosyncratic interpretations that individual Witches develop. In the present discussion only the most general of descriptions of Witchcraft as a belief system will be offered. Even so, the caveat must be posted again and yet again that individual Witches may or may not hold with some of the elements of even the most general description of Witchcraft.

A useful general description of Witchcraft has been developed by John Gordon Melton. Working from information gleaned from a number of Witch groups and traditions, his trait list corresponds closely enough to the more detailed and nuance laden image of Witchcraft presented in Margot Susanna Adler’s ‘Drawing Down the Moon’ (1979), a complete examination of Witchcraft to date. above should be added some items of a more ethical nature. Margot Susanna Adler states that most Witches subscribe to the Wiccan Creed, “An (if) ye harm none, do what ye will,” and to the “Threefold Law,” the triple return of good or evil to an actor. Upon occasion, some of my informants have cited the Wiccan Creed or Threefold Law as ethical constraints.

In terms of my own research experience with Witches, the general traits listed above are applicable to one degree or another depending upon the specific individuals being examined. however, be made. Three important qualifications must; First, there is a great elaboration of distinct yet overlapping traditions in Witchcraft. Second, individual Witches often incorporate into their religious world view a great number of more general occult and non-occult beliefs. Third, individuals often interpret even the most basic beliefs quite differently.

There is no single book, leader or corpus of dogma that all Witches can point to as embodying the central truth of their religion. There are instead any number of books, leaders and folk beliefs that Witches draw upon. As a result there has arisen a large number of different traditions in Witchcraft. An idea of the extent of the elaboration of major and minor traditions in Witchcraft may be garnered from the 1980 ‘Circle Guide to Wicca and Pagan Resources’ which lists some two hundred Wiccan, Pagan and Magickal groups. Herein are mentioned more than forty traditions: Druidic, Egyptian Gardnerian, Celtic and the like. To further complicate the picture there are large numbers of covens which are eclectic and draw upon any number of different traditions for inspiration. The coven I worked with was an eclectic group with no special group emphasis on following a particular tradition. However, individual Witches in the coven do express preferences for some traditions over others.

Sarah Genner
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